Sarah Eppler Janda, an assistant professor of history and government at Cameron University in Lawton, examines the lives of two Native American women from Oklahoma, LaDonna Harris (Comanche) and Wilma Mankiller (Cherokee).
LaDonna Harris was born on February 15, 1931 in Walters, Oklahoma; her father was Irishman Donald Crawford, her mother Comanche Lily Tabbytite. Harris’ blue eyes and light skin saved her from experiencing the racism against Indians during the 1930s and ‘40s as other American Indians did. Able to move amongst her tribe and the white society of her day, she met and married Fred Harris at the University of Oklahoma in Norman. She was aware that African Americans were discriminated against more than Native Americans.
When Fred Harris became a state senator, his wife was very much involved in his political career; they acted as a team. She was involved in the Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity. Fred Harris was appointed in 1964 to fill U.S. Senator Robert S. Kerr’s unfinished term, and LaDonna Harris continued to work with her husband, becomoing involved in the civil rights and feminist movements in Washington. She was also active in Native American rights movements and other nationally organized groups. The Harrises eventually divorced and went their separate ways amicably; both remained activists.
Wilma Mankiller was born on November 18, 1945 to Charley Mankiller, a Cherokee, and Clara Irene Sitton Mankiller, a Dutch-Irishwoman. Mankiller’s family moved to San Francisco because they could not survive economically in Oklahoma. There Wilma Mankiller encountered rabid racism. Wilma became involved in the Indian Center, coming into contact with Indians of various tribes. She became involved in the Red Power Movement and participated in the occupation of Alcatraz in November 1969, which lasted until June 1971. She also grew active in the feminist movement.
Mankiller married Charlie Soap, but after they divorced in 1974, she returned to Oklahoma in the summer of 1976 with her two daughters. Her entry into Cherokee government was made difficult by sexist attitudes, yet she became director of the Cherokee development department. In 1983, she ran for deputy chief, facing another Cherokee woman, Agnes Cowen, in a run-off election. Mankiller won and became the first female deputy chief.
In December 1985, principal chief Ross O. Swimmer resigned to become Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian affairs, which made Mankiller the principal chief. In 1987, Mankiller ran for principal chief and won. She was not the first woman to become a principal chief of a tribe in Oklahoma; the Sac and Fox Tribe had elected two before the Cherokees. But, as the author notes, the Sac and Fox Tribe is smaller and did not draw the attention of the press like the Cherokees, who are more numerous. Still, these three women made history.
Janda studies Harris and Mankiller individually as well as comparing the two. Each faced sexism and prejudice both outside and within their tribes. Mankiller faced sexism within her tribe more than Harris, especially since she was running for tribal leadership. Both became advocates for feminism and for civil rights.
Janda provides some black and white photographs of Harris and Mankiller, as well as endnotes, a bibliography and an index. This book is not for those looking for a relaxing book; it is an academic examination of these two women’s lives and their activism. Native Americans will appreciate this book about two famous American Indian women, especially those in Oklahoma during this centennial year of statehood. These two women have made great contributions to Oklahoma, their tribes, and society, facing many obstacles and overcoming them to emerge stronger.